Wednesday 5 October 2016

Mirepoix and Beyond

For years Tim and I had talked about going to Mirepoix, France, to pay homage to the cat of the same name who graced our lives, an expat herself who lived to almost 23 years of age (that’s 108 in human years). You may have never heard of Mirepoix the place (and perhaps know the cooking term), but it has a lovely cathedral dating from 1298; it’s your right proper medieval town!

Finally talk became planning, and planning became doing, and off we went, taking the 24-hour ferry (with car) to Santander, with stops along the way to see some of both Spain and France: Santander, if only to sleep overnight after the long  ferry journey; Bilbao, to swing through the famous Guggenheim museum and have some lunch before continuing on to San Sebastian, a city on the coast of Spain that the Basque call Donostia; then over the border to Mirepoix, St Emilion, La Rochelle, Angers, and finally back home via the much shorter, six-hour ferry via Caen to Portsmouth.

We called it our “taster tour”: not just because we were planning to taste a variety of food (pintxos, the Basque version of snacks on a stick), paella, an abundance of seafood, and French cuisine) and wine (Rioja, Bordeaux, Pineau des Charentes, Anjou), but because we’d hoped to get a flavour for what the region would be like and perhaps plan an extended stay in the future.
La Bodega del Riojano, Santander

The first order of business: the patch. As someone who gets seasick, I was willing to brave the overnight journey across the Bay of Biscay, but only with my trusty Scopoderm patch,  meant to prevent the confusing messsages going to your brain that cause travel sickness. The Bay of Biscay is known to be a bit “lumpy,” and to be honest I did wake up in the middle of the night and felt the ferry rocking a bit. Comforted by the patch (or at least the idea of it), I did fall back asleep and felt fine in the morning, and managed a light breakfast and lunch on the ferry before we disembarked in Santander in the early evening.

We didn’t spend much time once there; it was meant to be an opportunity to pause after the long ferry journey rather than a tour of the town. We found our hotel easily and also found a lovely restaurant to dine in—La Bodega del Riojano, which we’d highly recommend. We also found a little bar serving pintxos and wine, and sat idly watching activity in the port. Santander may not be a destination for most people, but the food and the wine are lovely, and we managed to pop into a cathedral there, dedicated to the assumption of Mary.

Alas the patch, stripped from behind my ear, should perhaps have stayed on a bit longer:  I was ill overnight and for the start of the next day, and many subsequent mornings felt ever so slightly under the weather. I was determined not to let it ruin the adventure, choosing to eat more toast, less coffee, slightly less exotic food (no oysters!) and drink slightly less wine.
Guggenheim, Bilbao

Our time in Bilbao was brief. We both wanted to see the architectural wonder of the Guggenheim museum, but were less enthusiastic about the exhibits. It was a rainy day and everything in Bilbao seemed crowded; it was the weekend, after all. We did manage to take lovely photos outside of Frank Gehry’s building, and strolled into the lobby, but left it there. We also went to St James’  Cathedral and, after a quick lunch at an Italian restaurant where we were served enormous salads we headed back in the car to find our way to San Sebastian.

While there we discovered a lovely place to have a drink and admire the pintxos at the bar—I can see how one can be tempted by the delightful snacks, like jambon and cheese peeking out of a bun, or some bit of seafood nestled in dough with a pink sauce.

We could have used more time in San Sebastian—there is a lot of history to take in, and the beaches are known to be lovely. We did take a stroll on the beach nearest our hotel, though the temperature was cool and the skies cloudy; still, there were families enjoying the sun—sometimes you just have to make do!

The drive to Mirepoix was about four hours—really a detour east from San Sebastian rather than heading north to Bordeaux, but it had to be done; it was the original purpose of our trek, after all. We were both quite glad we took the time to see this lovely town, with its market square, wood-timbered houses of various sizes and stages of crookedness, and the charm of a small French enclave happy to have tourists. The hotel we stayed at was small and friendly, and we had dinner there as well. 

On the way!
Naturally we posed with a few signs, and of course stopped into the lovely 13th century cathedral. It has one of the widest Gothic arches in Europe; I’d not seen anything like it before (perhaps because I’ve not been to Girona or Rome). And the gargoyles! Impressive. There were also some lovely doorknockers in Mirepoix well worth a photo!
Door knocker!

Mirepoix was earmarked just one day on our journey, so in the morning after our breakfast we hopped back in the car and headed north to Bordeaux country. If Mirepoix was lovely and quaint, well, St Emilion was that and more—my favourite destination on our taster tour. It felt like the countryside, rather than a city, and the rolling hills of vineyards and stately chateaux made for a photograph with each step down cobbled streets or along the path from one winery to the next. The shops were all rather posh; this is clearly a wealthy area. We stayed in a lovely stone-built guesthouse that was formerly a private mansion in the 17th century. With all of this going for it, it’s no wonder that St Emilion is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Mirepoix square

39 Rue de l'Évêché, Mirepoix
And of course there is the wine. We were perfectly positioned to park the car and have a bite of lunch, scanning the booklets from the tourism office on which wineries were open to the public in the area. We highlighted a few and then set off along the narrow, mostly quiet road to the first on our list which was open, Chateau Pontet-Canet, whose founder was the Master of the Horse to Louis XV in the early 18th century.  After viewing the underground cellar, we had a taste of one of their Grand Cru vintages, decided we liked it, and so began the filling of the boot (aka trunk) with wines from the region.

Merrily we strolled along, taking in the vineyards around us which were still heavy with the deep purple grapes, mostly merlot and cabernet franc which were to be harvested the following day. There were no gates, no guard dogs, and not a lot of other people frankly as we walked up the hill a bit to continue the self-guided tour.

Our second chateau visit was a bit more structured: an opportunity to have a guide speak to us—fortunately in English—with a small group of Argentinians and Canadians who ambled into Chateau Soutard. Tim and I arrived a bit earlier not knowing that there was a specific time for a tour, and so we wandered a bit around their land, which included a chicken coop and koi pond. Oh, and a rather lovely gift shop where Tim tried on a beret and announced he would buy one, though the one in the shop was oversized (and therefore we left without). 

It was clear the winery has had a recent refurb—it was all new and state of the art, complete with 72-person glass elevator to transport you down to the cellars. There are 52 vintages on offer, and we had a taste of two wines, one being the 2015 Grand Cru which was quite a nice quaff. They are a 30-hectare estate (about 75 acres) and their wines are available locally, so we left without stashing one in the boot and strolled back among the vines to the centre of town to have a coffee and take in the fading sunshine of the late afternoon. Bliss.

La Rochelle, our next stop on the journey, was to be a two-day stopover in a town filled with boats—both an old and new marina—seafood restaurants, a maritime museum, and lots of shops and yes, a cathedral!

Evening view, St Emilion
Tim had been once before—in fact it was the only destination that either of us had been to previously—but it was a long time ago and a lot has changed. We stayed in a hotel central enough to the old port and shopping, which was lovely, though it was also an area of the city that felt a bit worn. In fact La Rochelle has been a centre for fishing and trade since the 12th century—evidenced by some of the architecture.

While we absolutely loved the food in Spain, our favourite meal was probably in La Rochelle at a place aptly named Saveur Vivre—and why not with a name that translates into flavour and life? It was steps from our hotel, and we’d seen it had good reviews so decided to give it a go on one of our two nights in La Rochelle. The service was lovely, too, and Tim enjoyed his foie gras ravioli in a supreme sauce (which was rather foamy a la Heston) and I absolutely loved my langoustine spring rolls with a tamarind paste. I’d wholeheartedly recommend a visit there.

After a second day of traveling about the town on foot we decided to try a restaurant a friend of Tim’s had recommended—only his friend couldn’t remember the name of it, and gave us some slightly ambiguous direction to go by—in the new marina, along Avenue des Minimes, serves seafood . . . we walked about 40 minutes and found a place, which was very good but likely not what he had in mind! Le Plaisance was pleasant enough. What was special was as we walked we enjoyed the setting sun, and the sky was filled with lovely shades of pink that was a perfect backdrop to the boats in the marina.

One more stop, in Angers, where we needed to switch taste gears and drink pink! Angers is a medieval town beside the river Maine, just at the edge of the Loire valley. (More notably for history buffs it is the seat of the Plantagenet dynasty.) Oh, and it has a . . . you guessed it, one of those! The Cathédrale St-Maurice is known for its twin spires and beautiful stained-glass rose windows. We peeked in, of course. There are also some lovely timbered buildings and a chateau that has beautiful grounds and in a cold, dark room, the Apocalypse Tapestry.
Le Chateau, d'Angers

The tapestries were commissioned by the Duke of Anjou, woven between 1377 and 1382. The panels tell the story of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation by Saint John the Divine. These wonderful tapestries are now well faded from their previous colourful glory, though still quite something to see. It reminded me of having read a book, quite some time ago, about medieval weavers, and how I want to read it again having now seen some of original works from centuries ago. If only I could remember the book’s name! (Will have to scour the bookshelves at home.)
Tapestry panel -- seven-headed beast

We’d walked well more than 10,000 steps in the day and deciding that dinner was going to be all about what was near the hotel. Angers has an area that is actually quite cosmopolitan, and after taking a break in a nearby bar to rest our weary feet and think about what next, we’d seen a place with the odd name “Joe Carpa” just two blocks away, perfect for our tired toes. Carpa is short for carpaccio, and they had quite an extensive list of beef carpaccio dishes with different reductions, sauces, etc. I recalled a simple pasta dish on the menu outside that would be a soothing treat for my still aching stomach. 
Cathedral, Angers

The restaurant has an open front, with heat lamps for those who dared sit at the tables on the pavement on a rather cool evening. We chose a table just indoors which was a bit protected from the night chill and still had a lovely view. It was a lovely meal and a lovely last dinner on our wonderful journey.

One more short drive to the ferry, and in Caen we found a lovely bistro not far from the terminal and had the most delightful lunch—huge salads filled with fresh ingredients and of course, a carafe of local pink to toast the upcoming six-hour “ride” home. I would have sworn our host was not French—he was quite animated, and even gave us a thumbs' up at one point!

Before boarding the ferry there was first, of course, a pit stop at a local supermarket to scan the Bordeaux and Anjou on offer and use up the remaining space in the very small boot of our car. I was happy to have my Vivino app and free wifi to scan a few labels and get a quick check on ratings—there is such a wide selection it’s hard to know which to choose without a little help.

Once on the ferry we stayed on the stern of the ship for a couple of hours, sipping a little pink champagne to toast the end of the holiday and watch France and the sun disappear from view, and then moved inside when the air was too chilly to be comfortable. We had a quick dinner and then, because the boat was rolling a bit, we found comfortable seats to read and wile away the time until it was time to pop back in the car and head to the “little” ferry from Portsmouth to Fishbourne, not far from Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Fortunately we had GPS to help us get there, and with one minute to spare we pulled into the lot and were able to squeeze our little car into the last space for the 45-minute trek.

Portsmouth, from the ferry
Driving home with the top down on a balmy evening, we were happy to arrive back to Cowes and get under the duvet for an alarm-free Sunday morning.

And with that another wonderful adventure comes to a close. I certainly learned a lot along the way—about the history of the area, wine, cathedrals. Tim is a wonderful traveling companion because he knows so much about the history that he can casually work into the conversation. I also learned that taking a long ferry journey should be followed by a couple of days of rest for my body to “recover”! As with other journeys abroad, I longed for a better grasp of French; I keep saying that, but then after some time the feeling wanes until the next journey and I wish it all over again.

Taster tours are a great way to see a lot in a short space, though you have to be prepared to live out of a suitcase most of the time; I didn’t mind that at all, though I did occasionally wish we were settling in for a bit longer, particularly in St Emilion which has all the signs of a return journey.

La vie est courte; profiter du voyage!

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